From my journal, interviews, letters, and other writing about internally expelled Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza (once I can enter Gaza), plus their ancestral homelands. These dispatches are based on my latest sojourns in Palestine-Israel from mid-May to mid-July 2019 and more recent writing. Currently, the Covid-19 pandemic prevents me from returning. I now begin making plans to return in fall, 2021.
My major intention is to convey perspectives expressed by the people I interview, as I understand them, allowing for translation problems, misinformation on the parts of all people involved, and my own biases and ignorance. The histories they present, for instance, I may not agree with. I feel accuracy in reporting is more important than the accuracy of their statements. Rather than insert my disagreements with their statements, which could be regarded as an act of white, Eurocentric, male supremacy, I hope to provide open platforms for those I meet.
These gatekeepers [B’Tselem, Machson Watch, Breaking the Silence] are the ones that still confront us with a kind of mirror of you we are…. After all, [these] are the organizations that still enable us to maintain some kind of connection with reality…. [I]f we lose them, then I say that we truly become like animals or any other comparisons or adjectives that might suit us. At the moment that isn’t the situation—only because of them.Major General Ami Ayalon, former Israel Securities Authority head
Three steps to activism, including a “heart attack.”
I’ve followed the Sheik Jarrah story and a multitude of similar stories since I began my photographic witness in the region in 2003: the word impunity for me sums up some of the policies and behaviors of the Israeli government toward the Palestinians—generally widely support by Jewish Israelis. And strong support from the United States administration (including the current Biden administration) and congress. With notable and possibly expanding exceptions.
I use the term, “heart attack” or assault on one’s heart to describe what I believe are the three stages of political action:
The first is awareness—reading, hearing others, watching videos, following the news. The third step is activism—doing something like lobbying legislators, joining street demonstrations, donating money, visiting the region, and enlisting whatever tools you have such as writing, speaking, making art to foster structural change, in this case, the end of occupation and siege, gaining equal rights for all people in the region, with freedom and security for all.
What then, you ask, is the second step that moves you from the first to the third? The heart attack, an assault on your heart, a piercing, a febrile feeling that might keep you up at night, force you to think you’ve been mystically visited, believe you’ve been touched so deeply that you decide: now is the moment I take my next step. Action.
1. Awareness—the embers
2. Heart attack, i.e., something so throbbing that you can no longer remain inert—the irresistible spark
3. Activism—the fire in the belly, unquenchable
In my view, heart attack—not suffering one but encouraging one, being vulnerable to one—is the key factor shifting you from thinking to doing, from talking the talk to walking the talk. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr said, those who have nothing they’re willing to die for are not fit to live.
An example of this sequence from my own life.
I’ve been aware of Israel since my early teens, then impressed with the pioneer Israelis, open-shirted, arms bare, tan, and muscled, carrying rifles, forging “a land without a people for a people without a land.” They lived in agricultural coops, kibbutzim; I wanted to join them. This changed when I realized thru my travels in South Africa in the 1990s there is a parallel between how the white South Africans treated South African people of color and Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. My second version of awareness.
In 2002, in large part responding to surging Palestinian violence against injustice during the Second Intifada or Palestinian Uprising, Israel invaded all the major Palestinian centers like Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron, and most viciously Jenin. They demolished homes and agricultural lands. Safely at home, I went to bed fitfully, magically worried that the Israelis would come for me and my home—this waking vision was powerful, as if feasible while realizing it was imaginary—and I’d lose my home and possibly my life. One year later, an Israeli soldier cut into Rachel Corrie with a Caterpillar D9 bulldozer, American-made, heavily armed and armored, slicing thru her, breaking her back, killing her. I felt it. I was Rachel Corrie. I’d experienced my heart attack.
Now what? Do something. Don’t merely continue studying the situation, but do something. Since my calling is photography, I asked myself, can I photograph the situation? Maybe, but doesn’t that require I travel to the region? Of course. Isn’t that dangerous? Possibly. OK, try it. I joined a delegation organized by the Fellowship of Reconciliation and began my project, continuing to this moment. I became active.
The three steps: awareness, heart attack, activism.
My words when I signed an earlier petition: I have multiple personal connections with Palestinians living in Sheik Jarrah, visiting and photographing them for nearly two decades. They suffer constant threats from settlers who are supported by the Israeli government. They dispute the Israeli position that Jews own the land and insist they have legal rights to ownership.
- Save Sheikh Jarrah: The online campaign giving hope to Palestinian refugees in East Jerusalem, by Aseel Jundi (March 2021)
- Facing Eviction in Sheikh Jarrah, by Sarah Wildman, 2013
- You are Stealing My House (video), by Middle East Eye
- The Sabbagh Family: A Case Study in Palestinian Displacement from the Old City Basin, by Peace Now
- Evicting Palestine, by Penny Green and Amelia Smith (2016)
- Wadi Hummus, Sur Baher village (video)
- Jewish Voice for Peace (video)
- Jewish Nationalists Clash With Palestinians by Isabel Kershner (2009)
- Jewish festivities at the tomb of Shimon Halsadik, The Wise (photos)
- Settlement & Annexation Report: February 19, 2021, by Foundation for Middle East Peace
- Israel is committing “crime of apartheid,” Human Rights Watch says, by Arno Rosenfeld (April 27, 2021)
Searching for other examples of how people have moved from awareness to action, thanks to Peterson Toscano I learned more about Walt Whitman’s early writing career. What moved him to dramatically shift his writing style, after his long prelude of failed projects?
Beauty, intense beauty as was true when in 1852 he experienced heart-searing beauty in the form of opera, the Italian Madame Marietta Alboni one key. I’ll leave that story to Peterson to tell.