© All text & photos (unless otherwise noted) copyright Skip Schiel, 2006-2010
A series from my earlier writing, not always directly about Palestine-Israel, this an attempt to understand my journey of discovery that continues to enthrall and mystify me.
Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.
—Elie Wiesel, Acceptance speech, Nobel Peace Prize, December 10, 1986
I was aware of Lebanon in 1982. I saw photos and TV images of the destruction of Beirut. Osama Bin Laden, the alleged architect of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, apparently claimed that watching Israel destroy the downtown towers of Beirut planted the idea of attacking tall buildings in the US. I heard about the Israeli-sanctioned massacre of Palestinians in refugee camps, Shatila and Sabra. I observed from afar the flight of the Palestinian liberation organization into exile in Tunisia, and with it the rise of Yasser Arafat.
Sabra refugee camp, Lebanon, 1982, photo courtesy of the Internet
Closer to home, an Armenian family from Lebanon owned a Middle Eastern produce store in Watertown Massachusetts where I lived at the time. Altho I never spoke with them about Lebanon, I imagined the suffering of their relatives trapped in that besieged nation. Thru my imagination the family focused my attention on the unfolding catastrophe. I learned later that I was not alone in coming to the issue of the Middle East thru Lebanon. Leap forward 24 years to 2006: the second invasion of Lebanon. By then, with my 3 years of direct experience in Israel and the Occupied Territories, the renewed suffering traumatized me, as I expect happened in much of the world. During the summer of the 2006 Israeli-Israeli war, Hezbollah missiles landing on civilians in northern Israel, cluster bombs and white phosphorus killing over 1000 Lebanon’s civilians, I wept and bashed my fists into the table, angry and hurt that the massive killing continued.
Some observers of the conflict in the Middle East compare separation between Israelis and Palestinians to South African apartheid. In the mid 1980s I became intensely aware of apartheid in South Africa. This was a period of the worst of the worst, the most repressive period of apartheid. New and highly restrictive laws, censorship, house arrests, banning orders, detentions, torture, states of emergency, along with a growing international resistance movement thru educational campaigns, boycotts, divestment, and sanctions brought the issues to my attention. My first trip to South Africa was in 1990, during the demise of apartheid, a few weeks before the government released Nelson Mandela who would later be elected the first president of a free South Africa.
Photo courtesy of the Internet
I was part of a Quaker delegation. To visit Quakers in Soweto, the notorious township, we had to circumvent a restriction denying entrance to whites. I learned later while in the Occupied Territories of Palestine that Israel forbade its citzens from entering these regions, except for Israeli settlers. Similarly, South African Blacks could not enter white South Africa unless they had passes—leading to the famous anti-pass campaigns of the 1950s. Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza can enter Israel only with permits, very hard to obtain.
Dying in a township, 1999
Robben Island, Nelson Mandela’s home for most of his 27 years in captivity, “The University of Resistance,” 1999
At the gates of Auschwitz, the first night of Hannakah, December 4, 1994
Jews suffered the Holocaust, and before that, 2000 years of persecution. What might Auschwitz evoke if I were to visit? With my Germanic background, how would I respond to a killing field designed and implemented by some of my ancestors? In 1995 a Japanese Buddhist order I’m affiliated with, Nipponzan Myohoji, organized a pilgrimage commemorating the 50th anniversary of the end of World War 2. As much as possible we would walk from Auschwitz to Hiroshima, praying, observing, hearing stories and bringing them to others in World War 2 zones of suffering, such as the death camps, bombed cities, and occupied regions–Poland, Austria, Czech Republic, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Philippines, Vietnam, Japan, and Palestine and Israel. I’d yearned to visit Auschwitz and Hiroshima, but when I learned we’d go thru large parts of Israel & Palestine–my desire long smothered–I was delighted and understood that this was an opportunity I could not pass up.
At Auschwitz standing before the ovens I realized that had I been raised in Germany or Austria at that time, as had many of my ancestors, I could have gassed and burned the Jews. I might have been a willing executioner, intoxicated with Nazism.
Drawn by Emilia Cassela, courtesy of Gemini News Service
After 4 months of travel, I ran out of money and returned home to find a way to rejoin the pilgrimage. I would miss Israel or Palestine–I was devastated. The seed planted when I first discovered the pilgrimage’s plan went dormant, but did not die. After the pilgrimage ended I helped edit a book about our journey, Ashes and Light. The chapter about Palestine-Israel explored the theme of the Abrahamic tradition, Jews, Muslims, Christians all descended from the forefather Abraham and the two mothers, Hagar and Sarah. This common root was a new discovery for me, one I work with to this day in an attempt to comprehend the paradox of a family conflict–both the Abrahamic family and the wider family of all creation–that flames nearly out of control in Palestine and Israel. I gazed longingly at the photos made by my colleagues showing the pilgrims passing thru a Gaza checkpoint. I vowed to somehow find a way to make photos like this myself. If not with a pilgrimage, maybe a delegation, maybe eventually as a solo agent in a broader context. I was disappointed, unsure, confused, yearning: the seed in me slowly grew.
Crossing the Gaza checkpoint, 1995, photo by Bill Ledger
“WHAT IS YOUR NEXT PHOTO PROJECT?”
The 1995 pilgrimage began to concentrate my attention more directly on Palestine-Israel. I learned about the first Intifada, shaking off or rebelling in Arabic, that began in 1987 in Gaza, and with others I was hopeful that this largely nonviolent resistance might resolve the conflict. Then the Oslo years, surprise after surprise, again building hope. But I was only marginally knowledgeable about these events, spottily read and fuzzily focused. In 2000 I had a conversation with my elder daughter, Joey, who like me was growing more upset at events in Palestine-Israel after the obvious failures of Oslo and subsequent peace initiatives. She told me about Edward Said’s book, The Question of Palestine. Reading its graceful phrasing and passionate articulation began to ground me in the tortured and many faceted perspectives about the region. Later I was to read Israeli Jewish authors like David Goodman, Benny Morris, and Nurit Peled Elhanan to widen my perspective.
I met a Palestinian activist in Boston, Amer, outspoken about the injustice in his homeland. While driving home one evening, he was stopped by police who discovered in his car political posters about an event supporting Palestinians. He was arrested on a traffic charge and eventually deported to Jordan for an alleged visa infraction. In my mind, not only was he a human being from a Middle East rapidly growing in my consciousness but also a person badly treated by US authorities.
I attended a report meeting about a delegation from my city Cambridge that had recently returned from Israel and Palestine. One of the participants, a portly genial fellow, Marty Federman, wearing a kippah (skull cap), began his message with words to the point that some in the audience will probably object to what he’s saying. Indeed, after a few more sentences someone yelled out at him, liar, self-hating Jew, you should be ashamed! This was Hillel Stavis, legendary local arch supporter of Israel. This interchange–Marty remained calm–alerted me to the volatility of the issue and the imperative to engage with it. Rather than turn back, this evening affirmed my growing direction.
Drawn to deeper awareness of the region, the issues freightened me and caused severe pain. Simultaneously I was attracted and repelled. One outcome may have been to numb myself, to silence my heart, walk away and plunge into some other issue. How could I be useful, learn with an open heart, and bypass narrow thinking and all the preconceptions that had adhered to me over my 63 years? Wasn’t I a little old to begin this new adventure? I longed to be able to wipe my internal hard drive clean, except for my operating system, and reinstall needed software, begin again with absolutely zero assumptions, preconceptions, world views, supposed facts, and see with clear vision. Know the truth and the truth shall set you free.
Deer Island prison, Boston, 1988
Often people asked me what my next photo project would be. I’d completed a series about water, Bread and Puppet Theater, poverty, African Americans, and American Indians. I was musing about what next. I’d photographed in the old Deer Island prison and for three years visited a young Black man in Walpole, a maximum-security prison. I’d delved mildly into the Middle East topic. There were only two possibilities: prisons and Israel-Palestine.
SEPTEMBER 11, 2001
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was writing in my journal about this dilemma–which project to pursue?–when my younger daughter Katy and my sister Elaine visiting us from Alaska rushed into the house. They shouted, You won’t believe this, an airplane has just crashed into the World Trade Center. And they’ve closed Logan airport, all planes in the country are now grounded.
The explosions in the Towers and the Pentagon coincided with potential explosions in myself. I was very angry about the violence and intractability exhibited by all parties of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. So explosive that I felt myself becoming a bomb. This led to the realization that unless I found a way to work with my anger, to transform it into fuel for a long struggle, anger to outrage, a passion that would benefit rather than destroy, I would become self-destructive. I would not be a useful player. But what to do, how to activate, be responsible, use my craft?
URGENCY–TIME TO ACTIVATE
If verification of my urgency was needed, reflecting on Operation Defensive Shield, the Israeli invasion and reoccupation of most Palestinian cities in 2002 as a response to increased suicide attacks on Israel, sealed my direction. I recall awakening during that period with gratitude on my lips that I was alive, my home was intact, my family had survived. Yet, had I been living in Ramallah, for instance, I might awaken abruptly in the rubble of my home–if awakening at all, lucky to be alive.
Israeli soldiers during Operation Defensive Shield, photo courtesy the Israeli Security Agency
Presidential compound (muqata), Ramallah, Occupied Palestine, 2002, photo by Ronald de Hommel
Drawing on my experience with South Africa when I experienced the horror of apartheid and the valiant struggles against it, and Wounded Knee when I first learned compassion for others outside my sphere, I decided to engage thru photography, but this would require travel to the region, see with my own eyes and sense with my own heart the various realities people are forced to endure. In my imagination I could become a Jewish high school student on a bus blown up by a Palestinian suicide bomber. I might assume the role of the bomber. I might be an Israeli Knesset (legislative body) member who calls for the forced removal of all Arabs. I might be in the Palestinian Authority, seeking weapons from Arab countries. I could play many roles–in my imagination. I could meet real people, hear their stories, make photographs of them. But only if I were present in the region. And this would require undergoing some danger. I asked myself, am I willing to pay the ultimate price? And are my skills and personality suitable for the challenge?
I knew I could not continue relying solely on books, videos, speeches, slide shows, print exhibits, websites, or first hand accounts by recent travelers. Nothing so second hand. My path had to be on the ground–be there soon. Overcome my analysis paralysis.
What might be the most suitable method? Not solo. Definitely not a tour organized by a Jewish or Israeli group. Ah, a reality tour or alternative tour like those offered by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Global Exchange, and Boston to Palestine. Maybe join with the olive harvest as some friends have done.
During the summer of 2003, I attended a talk by an Israeli Jew who was initiating a housing project called Mosaic that would serve both Jews and Palestinians. He was the first Israeli Jew I’d met. I also met someone in the audience, the only dark skinned man present, Tarek, originally from Egypt, a handsome, deep voiced, impressive fellow who I learned later was part of the Muslim Peace Fellowship of Fellowship of Reconciliation. He was to co-lead a Fellowship of Reconciliation delegation in the fall. After much hesitation and confusion, I’d stumbled into a decision: travel with the delegation for two weeks thru Israel and Palestine, learn what I could, listen and look with an open heart, try out my photographic skills, and decide my next steps.
So I finally began, supported and opposed by one of my primary communities, the Religious Society of Friends. In my Quaker circle, other Friends, both Jews and strong supporters of Israel, are sorely tested by my views, as I usually am by theirs. Some think the photos I show from my experiences take sides, demonize Israel and Jews, demonstrate my anger and hatred, do not align with the traditional Quaker peacemaking mode, and harm rather than aid the cause of peace, freedom, and justice. They’ve walked out of my slide shows, questioned a major grant my community gave me for my work, twice rejected workshop proposals about Palestine and Israel at national gatherings, and might be now blocking my participation in the local meeting’s forum series. My perspectives, some feel, border on or reveal anti-Semitism, that dreaded accusation that can lead to self-silencing. One Friend worries that I may slip from critic of Israel to advocate for its destruction.
Friends Meeting House, Cambridge Massachusetts
I feel my Quaker community is my family, I cannot avoid them, so we must resolve this conflict. Happily in the context of the Compassionate Listening Project, some of my primary adversaries and I have reached reproachment. Additionally for about 3 years a small group of us have been meeting monthly, the Israel Palestine Working Group, and we’ve offered 2 public programs, while visiting key aides to our national legislators. This group acts as a vital support group for me.
For years, in our small group’s ignorance of a larger world, we assumed we were among the few Quakers active on this issue. Then 2 years ago we discovered Friend comrades who publishes maps showing the shrinkage of Palestinian lands and erected a website that links Friends nationally and eventually internationally wrestling with the question of Israel and Palestine.
Friends Meeting House, Cambridge Massachusetts
I’ve been 5 times to the region, nearly 15 months during the past 6 years, with an additional 6 months or so of travel in the southern and western regions of the United States giving slide shows and putting up exhibits. In the fall of 2007, enrolled in a writing workshop at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education where I teach photography, I soon realized I was the only male among 15 students. I tried reading one of my stories from a recent visit to the Middle East, about roadblocks and threats from Israeli soldiers. Some of my fellow students seemed to wince. Maybe I’d made the wrong choice of story to read. During the next few weeks, hearing names of people and listening to their writing, I soon guessed that more than half of my colleagues were Jewish. Perhaps I should choose different materials to work on and read. Discussing this with my good friend Y, herself a writer and writing teacher and knowing my photographic work in Israel-Palestine, I decided to try to tell the story of how I arrived at the issue that now absorbs me.
There’s no place in this world where I’ll belong when I’m gone
And I won’t know the right from the wrong when I’m gone
And you won’t find me singin’ on this song when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here
—Phil Ochs, “When I’m Gone”
Skip Schiel in Dheshei refugee camp, Bethlehem, 2003, photo by Mark Daoud
A Witness in Palestine, the work of Anna Baltzer
Ashes & Light (a book about the 1995 pilgrimage from Auschwitz to Hiroshima)
Visions of a New South Africa, 1999, photos by Skip Schiel
“And you will be carried where you do not wish to go,” a fuller account of my photographic journey, presented as the keynote at the New England Yearly Meeting sessions on August 6, 2005, (revised January 5, 2007)