Excerpts from my journal during a three month journey of photographic discovery in the Land of Troubles
August 27 & 28, 2009, Thursday & Friday, Sderot, Israel, in the home of Nomika Zion & Jaffa, Israel, on the roof of the Old Jaffa Hostel:
Yes, arrived in Israel. With much to show and tell. But first a dream, particularly powerful last night:
In one I was watching a movie in which a young man had tragically died, his family in grief. They either extracted him from the grave or were bringing him home for burial. I knew it was a film and I became very critical of the veracity of it when I saw the dead man, naked, scratch himself. What a cheap shot, I thought. And then he moved again so it became clear the intent was to show he was not dead at all. The family was amazed. Either a resurrection or a case of mistaken death.
The course of yesterday’s events unfolded in mysterious and heavenly ways. First the leave taking at the Quaker Palestine Youth Program office, a gift of my girl in hospital photo to the staff, clearing up the pay question at Al Aqsa (if I send them my bank info they promise a bank transfer of $300, this after I thought Mohammed had said no money available), waiting for Islam to finish the DVD writing of the Popular Achievement movie and my backed up photos, waiting for the taxi which I thought would be driven by the crazy and irrepressible Awni (it wasn’t, damn, someone new, without the chutzpah of Awni), final packing, bye to Hassen the building owner, then ride with Mosab, a quiet Mosab, to Erez. Rolling my black hard plastic luggage over all the gravel, rejecting an offer from one of the porters, this time unwisely, I ruined one wheel. I’ll probably have to replace the luggage or find a way to repair it or live with it till home.
Erez was fairly easy this time, the staff more polite than I recall from before. The same body X-ray device with the whirling doors, the same thorough scanning of all luggage, the same opening of most of my luggage to hand inspect—I watched them, they seemed nonchalant, didn’t look thru everything, didn’t seem to care, no one asked any questions, I probably could have brought the video tapes Raghda had asked me to bring to her brother in Ramallah—, the same series of gates and pens, and the same final stamp in my passport, “Erez.” And I’m in another world.
Gaza—on the way to Erez crossing point to Israel
Eric Yellin, the founder of Other Voice, from Sderot, met me; we drove the 3 km or so to Sderot and there the fantastical experience began. The distance is so small, the situation so different that I gasped. Luckily I could process this with Eric who delighted in showing me around the town. He took me to several hills overlooking Gaza where we could see Beit Hanoun, Beit Lahiya, Jabalia, and Gaza City itself, places I’ve visited and photographed and heard stories about, places where I’ve met people affected by policies of Israel and supported by many in Sderot. Not supported by Eric however, or his colleague in Other Voice, Nomika Zion, in whose home I slept last night, where I’m writing now.
On the 2nd of two hill visits the sun was setting. As I photographed, using my long lens, we heard the muezzin call everyone to prayer; everyone in Gaza was at this moment sitting down to break the fast, the Iftar, just as I’d done with the Popeye crew on the previous 2 evenings, and with Mohammed and family in Jabalia camp on the first night of Ramadan. Behind us was a reservoir of about 100 meters across, round and lined, with the water level down by about 10 meters. Eric explained that this had an illustrious history, attacked by Arabs during the early days of Israel, another case of historic hydropolitics.
Gaza from Sderot
Jabalia from Sderot
Jabalia, The Gaza Strip, in the distance, water reservoir in the foreground
Comparing Gaza with Sderot (some features are a result of the occupation, some are cultural and religious differences): Sderot residents are free to go anywhere in the world, if they have the necessary means (many are impoverished, recent immigrants themselves, and those holding Israeli passports, including Israeli Palestinians, cannot enter many Arab countries). Building materials are plentiful (if they can be afforded) so the damage from rocket attacks can be swiftly repaired (I saw no damage, did see ongoing construction of safe rooms.) The Internet is faster than anywhere else in this trip’s experience, and twice I’ve found free neighborhood networks to use. I can wear shorts outside during the day and drink beer and other alcoholic beverages. Malls. Larger cars. Elegant homes. Grassy expanses, trees, well tended palms. Fairly equal women’s rights. Good educational system. Drinkable water out of the tap. On and on. But, I wonder, how do people deal with cognitive dissonance, if any—the gap between the fiction of much of the conventional Israeli narrative and the truth of the suffering of the Palestinians, largely at the design of the Israeli government, voted into power by its citizens, in the “only true democracy in the Middle East.”
Fear is similar (and could unite the two populations). Gazans obviously live in constant dread of more attacks, and suffer from their loss of freedom and the continuation of the siege—these are defining elements in Gazan experience. For Sderotians they also fear: the renewal of rocket attacks, bigger and more accurate rockets. Altho the city of 22,000 has provided much shelter—this could be an entire story in itself: safe rooms added on to older houses, the requirement of a safe room beginning in 1990 during the first Iraq war, sealable against gas attacks, concrete walls some 1 meter thick in all new construction, the varieties of street shelters, protective roofs over existing buildings like schools, complete rebuilding of some structures like some schools to be rocket proof, for some instances—and at large cost (many donations came in from people around the world), no one can predict whether attacks will resume and if they do what will be fired next.
One style of rocket shelter
Protected high school
This might be compared to a more universal fear of nuclear holocaust—or catastrophic climate change, or a total and uncorrectable economic collapse—but it is more immediate. The rockets have affected everyone. Eric was at an intersection about 50 meters from a rocket that struck a car instantaneously killing its female passenger. Nomika told me about a rocket hitting a home near her, demolishing a major portion of it. I forget the exact figures but something like 8 people have died in the last 8 or so years, with many injuries. Wikipedia claims: [Rockets] have killed 13 residents, wounded hundreds, caused millions of dollars in damage, and disrupted daily life as well as the local economy. No rockets since May 19, 2009. But the degree and type of fear these attacks induce can’t be quantified. It is significant.
Nomika described for me two cases of women, both with children, whose fear piled up so high that suddenly both decided, separately, to flee. Eric estimates about 5,000 residents left during the recent assault, some now returning. That’s 20% of the population. Furthermore, those leaving, Nomika told me, were the “stronger” elements of the population, meaning those with stronger economic means. So poor people tended to be trapped here, they and the elderly. Had I been a resident, I too might have been unable to leave, suffering greatly from not only the entrapment but my feebleness. If I lived in an older building without safe areas, without nearby large shelters, I’d have only the basement for refuge. If I lived more than a few floors up, the warning (if it occurred at all, the rocket that killed the woman in the car arrived with no alert, alerts provide about 15 seconds warning) probably would not give me enough time in my weakened aged condition to reach the basement. What would I do? Tremble and pray.
Home of Nomika Zion
As might be expected during war conditions, many supported powerful retaliation. And some, Nomika told me, tended to become more extreme. She outlined the case of a man in the neighborhood, the kibbutz—more about this tantalizing aspect of life in Sderot later—who when in his 20s, in the army, refused deployment to the territories. And was imprisoned, if I remember the story correctly. And now: wipe them out, yes all of them, including the children, if they fire one more rocket at us.
And he’s not alone. Which makes Other Voice, the organization that Eric founded and Nomika participates in even more impressive. They speak as Sderotians who deplore the use of violence to bring peace, who attempt to bridge the differences between themselves as Israelis and their Gazan neighbors across the road, the fence, the wall, the gulf created by more than 20 years of violence. Eric believes the consistent Israeli policy of violent retaliation lacks an end game, a purpose. It is based primarily on fear, not so much hatred. A fear that he says, is in the DNA of Jews everywhere, having experienced 2 millennia of persecution, climaxed by the holocaust. His wife lost many in her family. He did not.
Nomika is well known internationally, having written an article during the assault that was widely circulated (linked below). Hundreds of journalists interviewed her, she won a prize, visited NYC and DC when she received it recently (her first trip to the USA), and now is scorned by many in her town. What motivates her? I might ask her again to try to explain that most vexing of all questions to anyone daring to speak out.
Eric recently took a group of Gazan children to the West Bank, with permission of the Israeli government. He seemed thrilled when I put him on the phone yesterday to Belal in Gaza. I’d called Belal to say goodbye more personally than by chat. I know Belal loves and misses me. Since Eric was standing nearby, on an impulse hard to explain, I told Belal where I was, who I was with, and then suddenly burst out with, and would you like to talk with this guy? Of course, he said. And Belal is one of the best of my friends to do this: articulate, impassioned, obviously and publicly suffering.
Eric Yellin on the phone with Belal Badwan in Gaza
Belal Badwan, 2006
I was impressed with Eric’s response, listening respectfully, apologizing for what Israelis had done to Belal and his people, and promising to stay in touch. This might be a connection, because of Belal’s position as teacher, that could flourish in bridge building. Yet to be seen.
Eric was born in Israel, lived here to the age of 5, raised by his father I think he said, parents divorced, mother living in Green Gulch Buddhist community near San Francisco (maybe Y knows her) for decades, father in Vermont (he formerly a photographer, helping make a book about Johns sea coast island in South Carolina, a book Eric proudly showed me, also founded a blue grass band), then back to the States till he was 17 when he chose to return to Israel, serve in the Israeli army (after first being posted as a prison guard, his elder son told me, himself imprisoned for refusal to continue that assignment, and then requesting a position as military investigator in Gaza, just as the first intifada began, many stories here), marry a 2nd generation Israeli, raise boys (twins 13, another 15 who wishes to become a combat soldier despite saying he shares his father’s politics), and enter his life as activist.
He said, I’ve considered leaving the country, I might someday, but I love the intensity of living here. I couldn’t remain here without the work I’m doing as an activist. On this we seem to agree (on much we agree, I found him very compatible with my views. I also would not wish to continue living in the States, or perhaps living anywhere, if I weren’t doing the work I do thru photography and writing. That is, we are both courting despair by examining so closely the suffering of others, by living in lands of cognitive dissonance. And we might succumb if we didn’t have an action channel.)
Eric agrees that Israel is self-corrosive, and might be doomed. Yet he is hopeful. He has recently taken a part time position with an organization that does peace activism. I should get the name again, and I assume he’s active with Other Voice. Also he is part of a start up software or computer company based in the kibbutz. He is responsible for the network at the kibbutz.
Eric told me he hates the word normalization, because it is inaccurate, almost a slur on the idea of pairing. Opposing normalization, a view taken by most Palestinians I know, means that there should be no partnerships between Palestinians and Israelis, unless the Israelis agree with the call to end the occupation and act on it. He believes strongly, as I think Nomika does and I certainly do, in the value of personal exchanges, interactions, human to human. How else develop trust? This is part of a long-range strategy and I believe has been part of all justice movements. Gandhi for instance, as far as I know, never hesitated to meet with adversaries. I wonder what he’d say about normalization. Or Martin Luther King Jr? In South Africa the kononia (kononia means communion by intimate participation) movement played a role in ending apartheid—families dining together from across the political and social divisions. Also in the United States the Kononia Farm brought European and African Americans together in shared living, demonstrating (at some cost to the residents) that coexistence was possible.
To embody this principle of sharing experiences, both Nomika and Eric live in a kibbutz, and work to foster relations between widely divided adversaries, namely Gazans and Israelis. They suffer for this, ostracized from some neighbors who might not share their values. All buildings are duplexes, and, judging from the homes of Nomika and Eric, vary in size and quality, also how they’re furnished. Nomika’s is elegant and appealing, filled with art, plants, fine kitchenware, kept clean, a model of simple yet luxurious living. I found Eric’s to be messy, perhaps more from the presence of their 3 boys than anything native to the adults. How would my home look if I lived there, I pondered?
And so, the kibbutz: the Hebrew word means come together. This one, Migvan, is unusual in its being relatively young and in an urban environment. Founded by Nomika, Migvan moved from an apartment complex with tiny units to its present, spacious, tree lined site in 2000. (She’s lived in Sderot since 1988.)
And I’m afraid I now don’t have time to write about Nomika, maybe another time. She can speak for herself thru her powerful article “War Diary from Sderot.”
Inside Eric Yellin’s home
I just learned that Ted Kennedy, my senator from Massachusetts, died at age 77, from his brain cancer—and accolades are pouring in, rightly. Like his 2 brothers he is a great man. Too bad he wasn’t more astute and courageous about Israel-Palestine. In fact, a friend just emailed a quote from the website of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Action Committee:
Sen. Kennedy was a longstanding supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
AIPAC joins all Americans in mourning the loss of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a staunch supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship and a true and longstanding friend of America’s pro-Israel community.
During his more than four decades in the U.S. Senate, Sen. Kennedy consistently supported American assistance to Israel, particularly during the Jewish state’s most trying times, in the wake of the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. He led the fight against U.S. arms sales to Israel’s enemies, spoke out forcefully against the Arab League boycott of Israel and was a fierce critic of the United Nations’ isolation of the Jewish state; he urged his colleagues to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital, and warned of the dangers of global terrorism.
Sen. Kennedy became the leading champion for persecuted Soviet Jewry, advocating on behalf of refuseniks and those Jews wishing to leave the Soviet Union, personally raising their issues with Soviet leaders at every possible opportunity, and demanding that the United States provide loan guarantees to Israel to absorb Jewish refugees.
Senator Kennedy’s legacy of leadership on these issues and his lifelong support for one of America’s closest allies are hallmarks of his historic career devoted to serving the best interests of the American people and our values. He will be sorely missed.
Israel’s ‘other voices’ go unheard
By Rachel Shabi in Israel
Photos by Jessica Griffin
Generally good photography, might be working in Gaza