The Israel-Palestine Kaleidoscope: A memoir of my involvement with issues in the Land of Troubles—Part One

The road between Jerusalem and Jericho in the mid 1800’s

Israeli-only road thru the West Bank of Occupied Palestine, 2009,
photo by Kathy Felgran

© All text & visuals copyright Skip Schiel, 2006-2010 (except for two photos by Kathy Felgran)

The first in a series of my earlier writing, not always directly about Palestine-Israel, an attempt to understand my journey of discovery that continues to enthrall and mystify me.

PHOTOS from most recent trip, summer 2009

VIDEOStarting Point: An exhibition of photographs from Gaza

Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive…

…Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart
can be left open,
the door of compassion.

—Thich Nhat Hanh, from “Please Call Me By My True Names”

MAIMONIDES SCHOOL

September 1966, 25 years old, a four-month-old daughter, Vietnam raging, quit graduate school, unemployed with skills in mathematics. And so I found a job teaching math and science at an Orthodox Jewish school in Brookline, Maimonides. Rabbi Cohen, jolly and willing to risk hiring someone with virtually no teaching experience, welcomed me to the school. He gave me free range in what I taught and how. The students, tho at times rambunctious, were mostly attentive and dedicated. I taught a calculus class to 12th graders. During the year, the school held programs educating students about Israel and encouraging support of the state. More than 50 percent of the school’s graduating seniors defer their college matriculation so they can spend at least one year studying in Israeli institutions. To date more than 150 graduates have become Israeli residents. Near the end of the academic year, June 1967, a major war erupted in Israel, ending in 6 days with the total defeat of the combined armies of Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Syria. My students and fellow staff were elated–I shared that feeling, buoyed by the prospect of a safe and secure Israel. Later my views were to change. How could I have foreseen then that 36 years later I—in essence a type of Zionist, believing that Jews worldwide had a right to a homeland and nation, even if this required the removal of indigenous people—would undertake a photojournalism project about Israel and Palestine, living there for extended periods of time to make photographs elucidating aspects of the troubles?

WORLD WAR 2

I was born one year and a few days before the United States entered the war after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor–1940, as President Roosevelt declared A Day of Infamy. World War 2 effectively ended the Great Depression, brought Blacks and women into the work force, fostered a short lived spirit of sacrifice (Victory Gardens inspired me later to become a vegetable gardener), created unusual alliances such as the US and Soviet Union, and simultaneously initiated the Cold War. The War set the stage for the emergence of the US as the sole superpower.

On the day of my birth, December 4, Jews were being rounded up throughout the regions controlled by Germany. The Nazis were concocting and soon implementing The Final Solution, the extermination of all Jews in all the regions they controlled, potentially the entire world. Not only was I, as might be expected at my age, oblivious to events across the Atlantic, my parents, neighbors, and much of the country were also. As stories slowly leaked out about the Shoah or Holocaust, most people in the US and much of the world chose not to pay attention.

This is especially surprising since my sister and I have long wondered if my mother with her features, mannerism, close Jewish friends and her maiden name, Sage, changed from Zagy when her family immigrated to the US, was Jewish. Asking her about this always elicited a strong denial, as if she were embarrassed even to be asked. I felt simply curious about this possibility, neither proud nor ashamed, neither desirous of being Jewish or embarrassed by the prospect.

My mother, Pearl (Sage) Schiel

When WW2 ended with the defeat of the Nazis and the full revelation of the horrors Jews and others like the Roma and Soviet prisoners of war experienced, I was fearful. My heritage is German and Austrian. I tried to conceal my background, feeling that if discovered, I could be ostracized or banished by even my closest friends. For a short period, I lived in terror, the only time in my life I’ve felt threatened because of elements of my personal history beyond my control. Germans had been the enemy, Germans were now vanquished, the “Mad Man”, Hitler, was Austrian. The 1940s were a volatile time–the beginning of the modern civil rights movement, the anxiety about Communism, and the aftermath of profiling Japanese people, Asians generally, during the War.

Auschwitz, 1994

ISRAELI PIONEERS

I grew up with images of young Jewish pioneers settling the newly founded state of Israel. I was 7 years old when Israel became a state, I was entering my own pioneer period. I visualized young tanned bodies, male and female sharing equally in cultivating the land and building communities. They wore shorts and short-sleeved shirts that revealed muscled limbs. Narrow brimmed caps blocked out the intense sun. They all smiled, a few carried rifles, they seemed inordinately happy. I was attracted.

1938

Joining the Cub Scouts, later very active in Boy Scouting, I fantasized that my life as a Scout might transform into a possible life as a kibbutznik . The world was beginning to learn about the communal spirit of the Israeli founders. I was excited by the word kibbutz, striking me as some sort of idealized home shared by many families. With my rebellious spirit I thought if I lived on a kibbutz, I’d have multiple parents and many more friends to play with. Later in college, meeting Bruno Bettleheim, the renowned Austrian psychologist who’d studied children on kibbutzim, I gained a more mature view of benefits and pitfalls of life on the kibbutz. Indeed, the kibbutz inculcated strong moral values, but over time experienced a gradual erosion of communal spirit.

CATHOLICS & PALESTINIANS

I knew nothing about Palestinians: they were invisible, absent, ciphers. I reflected the ignorance of most of my peers, I had some confused notion of everyone in the region once being Palestinian, but now no one was. Where did they all go? They had mysteriously vanished, like American Indians. I knew nothing of the consequences they’d experienced as a result of the founding of Israel. There was no Palestine, except in biblical picture books that depicted the ancient and supposed life of Jesus.

Skip Schiel dressed for his First Communion

My parents were Catholic. They dragged me to church on most Sundays. I viewed pictures, either photos or drawings and paintings, depicting a hot dry dusty Palestine. Our church sent delegations of church members–pilgrims–to what we called the Holy Land. During this period a desire to journey to special places–pilgrimage–grew in me. For years, whenever the prospect arose of actually visiting Israel (never Palestine as we were taught not to call it) I felt a major blockage, a huge stop sign–a barrier, ditch, checkpoint–in the middle of my path. In my mind, the place was as unreachable as the middle of the earth or the rim of the Milky Way. How would I ever manage to make such a long arduous trip? Yet inwardly a yearning grew.

Sermon on the Mount

Christ on the cross, the suffering Christ, the eternally suffering Christ, is emblazoned on my internal screen. I imagined Jesus as a young boy questioning the priests in the temple. I visualized him later during his last days of teaching sweeping his arms across the moneylenders’ tables in the temple, metal shekel pieces thudding on the smooth white limestone floor. I envisaged Christ entering Jerusalem on a donkey, his followers strewing palm fronds on his path. He was heading heroically to the Last Supper and his final agony. With my Catholic peers, I learned to make the Stations of the Cross, that symbolic pilgrimage with Christ along the Via Dolorosa, The Way of Sorrows. His feet were indelibly imprinted in the limestone–contrary to reality, but foot prints that I would later seek on my various journeys to the region. I learned to honor the man’s teachings–to the point of considering myself one of his acolytes–and even as a youth doubted the more mystical and probably fictitious elements of his story. Not until I was much older would I begin to question the teaching about Jews that emanated from my Catholic background, some subtle like sculpting and painting a non Jewish-looking Jesus and disciples, and some blatant like the passages that ascribe his murder solely to the Jewish priests and mob. And only later would I more fully explore the Hebrew Testament, slowly gaining insights into the archetypal story of the Abrahamic tradition. As I learned some of the stories of the family of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, of Ishmael and Isaac, of Joseph, I also slowly shifted perspectives about the Israeli state and the Palestinian struggles.

JEWS AND ME

Who was Jewish in my childhood and what relations did I have with them? Of course no one was Palestinian, no one was even Muslim or Arabic on the Southside of Chicago in the 1940 and 50s. I remember two Jewish boys in my school class, Chuck Bernstein, living about 5 houses down the street from me, a short kid, but agile and eager to play sandlot football and baseball with our informal neighborhood teams. We weren’t close, but we were often teammates. I knew he was Jewish but I don’t recall it making a difference about friendship. Howie Hoffman, with buckteeth, a remote, mysterious character, was another Jewish classmate, never a friend, never an enemy. My sister, Elaine, however, had many Jewish friends, as did my parents. Occasionally she attended Jewish events such as bar mitzvahs. But never a religious service. Our church prohibited all participation in other religions’ services. For me Jewishness was a mark ranging in importance between hair color and sports ability. It might be an insignificant attribute, or it might persuade me to wish to be teammate.

1952 c.

Later in high school and university, Jewishness submerged–it disappeared as a distinctive mark. I did not notice whether someone was Jewish except when the context disclosed people’s cultural or religious orientation. However, in later life, my current life, I am very aware when someone seems Jewish. One of my best friends, Stan, is Jewish, tho not practicing his religion. With his daughters, he often celebrates some of the holidays. One daughter told me after she’d traveled to Israel, this is the first time I’ve felt safe.

Stan is an artist and feels deeply, he is quick to express his emotions. He is short, walks with a severe limp from a car accident, and works as a tearcher, theater director, and visual artist. He and I endlessly discuss Jews, Israel, and Palestine. He has strong opinions and is trying to formulate a way to peace and justice in Israel-Palestine. In 2003 we traveled together on a delegation to Israel and Palestine, my first of 5 journeys. He was terrified that he’d be identified as a Jew when visiting a Palestinian village. He thought he might be stoned. On the long plane ride home, during a quiet moment when most of us were sleeping, Stan noticed an empty seat next to Scott, one of the co-leaders of our delegation. Scott had asked for reflections about our experiences; he preferred them in writing. Stan took that empty seat, said he wanted to express his feelings from the trip. I am so ashamed, he said as he openly wept, of the suffering Jews are  causing to Palestinians.

Some of my Jewish former friends, like Linda, have abandoned me because of my attitudes about the conflicts in Palestine and Israel. One of my primary adversaries is another Stan, Jewish, with family connections to Israel. He is short, sturdy, ebullient, vociferous, and like me, a photographer and teacher of photography. But this Stan is a strong supporter of Israel. He once brought a tape recorder to one of my presentations, taping without permission Jeff Halper, an Israeli Jew, a fierce critic of Israel. Jeff was testifying in favor of my project at one of my fundraisers. Stan and I had coffee one evening to talk over our differences. He sternly admonished me for what he felt was my partisan approach, claiming I knew nothing of Israeli and Jewish suffering, was merely spouting ignorant propaganda, and would do a greater service if I abandoned my project. I’m on his email list, which I consider a great gift, because he frequently sends me materials from the most conservative Jewish groups. In this manner, I learned better the arguments and evidence of some of my opponents.

Partially as a survival mechanism I now rigorously tune to who is Jewish because this will effect how and what I express concerning the Middle East, the Israeli lobby, Zionism, and related topics. Rightly or wrongly, it also allows me to anticipate some of their perspectives. But most importantly, it reminds me that this human being that I’m now engaged with might feel wounded by history, the stark fact of the holocaust, the millennia of suffering that led to that diabolical act, and feels no one would protect Jews if again threatened with annihilation. I am struggling to comprehend that this is an enduring wound coloring present experience.

MUNICH, 1972

1967, the elation at victory of the Israeli army and then five years later, Munich, the Olympic Games, 1972. The abduction of Israeli athletes added to an unfolding picture of horror, complicating my picture. Who is the victim, who the aggressor? As might have been true for others, I was horrified when all eleven athletes died before and during a failed rescue attempt. The context for this act of aggression on civilians was a wave of airplane hijackings beginning in the 1960s. Palestinian militants–often young men masked and carrying rifles and grenades, an enduring image leading to a dangerous stereotype–committed many of these attacks, with Israelis or the Israeli national airline, El Al, the primary target. These attacks might have heightened sympathy for Israel–it did in my case.

I didn’t follow closely the various attempts at bringing peace, justice, and security to the region. Only recently, with my passion for the region and its troubles, have I explored the details of these flawed attempts. I was only dimly aware of President Carter’s Camp David initiatives and signing the peace treat between Israel and Egypt in 1978. I had no idea then that Carter would go on to continue his deep involvement with the issues, try to broker agreements, monitor elections in Palestine, and finally in 2006 publish a seminal book, Palestine–Peace or Apartheid? This book would help open the debate in the US about next steps to resolve the conflict.

TO BE CONTINUED

Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.

—Goethe

Palestinian, 2009, photo by Kathy Felgran

LINKS:

Maimonides School

Pioneer Israel:

Then

Now

Kibbutz

5 thoughts on “The Israel-Palestine Kaleidoscope: A memoir of my involvement with issues in the Land of Troubles—Part One

  1. Skip, Thanks so much for this good work. Your personal journey through life, with experiences and insights so many of us have shared, feels so real and familiar. It helps me reflect on my own journey, as I too have moved along in the direction that you and ever more of us are traveling. Step by step we’ve gained greater awareness and experienced greater distress at the reality that has come to pass in that once Holy land.

    I’m reading every word with interest. The photos and illustrations add depth. Awaiting Part II…..

    Like

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